On July 29, 2008, history was made in the United States House of Representatives – well, kinda. Last week, the House formally apologized for slavery, Jim Crow, and for the racist social consequences that have followed. Never before has the U.S. government publicly apologized for the social institution that reduced Africans to chattel. On one hand, I was humbled, not by the apology, but by the tremendous sacrifice that led to it. To be in a moment where the U.S. House of Representatives publicly apologizes for slavery is certainly a testament to some level of social progress. And because any and all societal progress that black people have experienced is due mostly to the courage, perseverance, and radical love of everyday black folk, this progress should certainly be acknowledged. So I want to preface the remainder of this piece by paying homage to those who have paved the way.
Nonetheless, social progress notwithstanding, my initial reaction sounded something like this: “Really, an apology?!” As I sat with my thoughts, I was filled with an amalgam of emotions. I found it humorous (in a laugh-to-keep-from-crying kind of way), insulting (when considered vis-à-vis the racist realities that still dominate black and brown American life), and angering (at this juncture in our history, is this really all there is to our government’s analysis of America’s race problem?). An excerpt from Cornel West’s Race Matters will help to contextualize my thoughts:
Black people in the United States differ from all other modern people owing to the unprecedented levels of unregulated and unrestrained violence directed at them. No other people have been taught to hate themselves – psychic violence – reinforced by the powers of state and civic coercion – physical violence – for the primary purpose of controlling their minds and exploiting their labor for nearly four hundred years.
Some people, however, might posit that I’m being unfair, or at least a little harsh. What if the apology was sincere? What if there was real penitence present? As Christians, are we not called to forgive, “Not seven, but seventy times seven?”
I affirm the need to forgive. However, in this situation it is even more vital to remember the meaning of repentance. The Greek word for repent is “metanoia” and it means to change one’s mind or purpose. The U.S. government, regardless of any apology, cannot be properly forgiven because it has not undergone a sincere “metanoia.” For this apology to yield any meaningful sincerity, it must be reinforced by real, concrete action. A great starting point would be to cease building prisons in lieu of quality schools. This would contribute not only to the reconstruction of black families, but all poor families ravaged by our corrupt legal system. Sadly, this act of sincere repentance (and it is only one of many possibilities) will probably not happen, mainly because of a nagging feeling I had when I first heard of the apology. I had this strange feeling that the apology came with the House members sitting down, so as to protect their wallets. Real American repentance for racism is going to cost us, not just sentiment but also money, and a lot of it. That said, now let’s see how sincerely repentant our government is.
Ben Sanders III received his Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York City and is a Ph.D. student at the Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver. His interests include liberation theologies, and the study of the theological and ethical implications of black religion, race, and racialization.